Thursday, October 01, 2015

Review of 'Post Capitalism' by Paul Mason

This is simultaneously an important book and a somewhat disappointing one. Here, as with his other book ‘Why it’s still kicking off everywhere’, he’s taken a really important topic and written about it with great clarity and a style that makes quite difficult stuff rather accessible. The disappointment (which also applied to the other book) is that the analysis is great but the prescription falls rather flat.

Here he’s writing about the way in which the present model of capitalism, and by extension the capitalist system itself, has reached a critical point. The old model is coming off the rails, sinking under the weight of the massive debts that it has created as a result of financialization and downright fraud, and finding that its very success in transferring wealth upwards leaves it short of the demand that it needs to keep the wheels turning. It’s not suited to a world in which the marginal cost of the stuff that people want to buy is approaching zero. It is in any case ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of climate change, an ageing population and instability-induced mass migrations.

What’s really great about this book is the way it synthesises some of the best writing about the transformative potential of the internet and the web with a non-dogmatic perspective from the Marxist tradition. So on the one had we get Yochai Benkler, who I think is rather brilliant but have never seen anyone on the left even notice, and on the other hand we get Kondratieff, and also Preobrazhensky and Hildferding on the transition from capitalism to socialism. There’s an account of the difficulties that the Soviets had in running a planned economy, and no concessions to the notion that the USSR was in any sense ‘actually existing socialism’ or even ‘a degenerated workers’ state’. And some interesting observations about mainstream economic and management theory that I didn't know about.  

There’s a critical account of how the Marxist tradition has been wrong about the politics of skilled workers, and of the working class as a whole – how it has historically sought to build institutions and mechanisms of solidarity within capitalism, rather than simply set its face against it because it had nothing to lose but its chains. There’s a great discussion of the role of skill in the labour process under capitalism, and the extent to which capitalism in its Taylorist and Fordist modes needed to expunge skill from work.

There are sections that made me smile, and others that made me want to punch the air in gratitude that someone else had ‘got it’ and expressed it better than I could.

I learned lots – not least about Bogdanov, a sometime ex-Bolshevik and early Soviet sci-fi writer with a powerful view of a post-capitalist society (among lots of other things). But I was also struck by some omissions. There’s no mention of Harry Braverman, whose ‘Labour and Monopoly Capital’ is all about Taylorism and capitalism’s relationship to skill; or to Mike Cooley, whose ‘Architect or Bee’ addressed the same issues – rather prophetically, I’d say – in relation to the automatization of white collar work. Stafford Beer, who tried to deploy early computers in support of Allende’s socialist planning, doesn’t get a mention.

And since he makes much of the idea that the left can and should learn from the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it’s a surprise to find no mention of E P Thompson, who explored the same idea at length in ‘The Poverty of Theory’. And I’d like to have seen at least a nod to Karl Polanyi, who wrote about the cruelty explicit in the emergence of the market economy, and about the first wave of globalisation and its collapse, in ‘The Great Transformation’. Polanyi’s important, too, in that he writes about how the rise of capitalism created capitalist people, and how by implication another society would bring about different people – it’s a rather strong rebuttal of the ‘human nature’ argument for capitalism and greed.

It’s a book, not a three-year university course, so all of these omissions can be forgiven. So, ultimately, can the fact that ‘what is to be done’ section is a bit thin and a bit lame. Some of it reads like a lefty version of the ‘Californian ideology’ – technology is great and it will enable super new stuff that makes things better. I don’t think he gives sufficient weight to the way in which new communications technologies do allow the marketization of things that have hitherto not been susceptible – I’m thinking of ‘task-sharing’ websites like TaskRabbit, which are the 21st century equivalent of the hiring fair for domestic servants. Trebor Scholz has written some good stuff about ‘platform capitalism’, and it also doesn’t get a mention here.

I’m aware too, that the internet has rubbed away some of the scraps of autonomy and economic independence that were – precariously – available to some self-employed ‘creative’ artisans. CD sales at the end of a gig helped some independent musicians to make a living, but no-one buys them anymore except as a way of making a donation. Writers might expect to get paid for freelance contributions; now they are offered ‘guest blogs’ to which they are expected to contribute for free.

But I don’t want this to come over as a sustained whine. I really liked this book, and my disappointment with the end is in proportion to my exultation at the strength of the analysis. I hope that Paul Mason find a way to build on it, and to provide concrete examples of successful prefigurative projects. I don’t have any problem with the idea of building a new world within the shell of the old one; there are many variants of this strategy, and they’re not all utopian or apolitical or reformist. We just need to find the right ways to do it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Review of 'The Global Minotaur' by Yanis Varoufakis

An overview of global finance and economics, from the perspective of someone who is clearly a radical dissenter but not a complete outsider. In person and when speaking Varoufakis is more radical than this book, which ends up calling for a revived, fairer Bretton Woods with America at the centre - not what I expected from a Marxist. Still, there's lots of very clear explication of how the system works, and the roles of the various countries within it. I suspect it will stand a re-reading...I get CDOs, but can't follow CDSs no matter how often I read about them.

I kept wanting to take bits of this and shove it under the noses of those of a self-deceiving mainstream-economics persuasion, but it's not appropriate for that. I'd really like for there to be a shorter, simpler version aimed at that.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review of 'Jurassic York'

This book is a hysterical mash-up of Shakespeare, Star Wars, 1984 and Brave New World, the Carry On films, dystopian cyberpunk…well, it’s just wonderful. There’s a tongue-in-cheek Hibernophobia about it, but I don’t think any Scots people could really take offence. The plot is at least partly borrowed from Star Wars, but set in a fictional future England (Scotland having become independent long ago) ruled by a cloned and re-vivified Richard III, who is just as nasty as Shakespeare makes his first incarnation.

Lots of quoting from Shakespeare and contemporary pop songs, tons of humour, characters with names from contemporary British politics, a feminist slant (the warriors are mainly girls because lots of men died in a plague a while back)…what’s not to like?

A slightly serious point; the Wars of the Roses were the classic period of so-called “Bastard Feudalism”, when traditional loyalties and obligations broke down and political relationships were fluid and fast-changing. I think it might have been better to depict a contemporary version of “Bastard Feudalism” (after all, our contemporary Tories fit the bill on most counts) rather than try to squeeze the plot of this on to a precise mapping of the Yorkist-Lancastrian divide. I think the authors could have more fun with Johnson and Cameron, or their latter-day avatars, than they do with revivified defunct noblemen.

But that’s a quibble. This is enormous fun, and much to be enjoyed.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Review of 45 Years

I saw this a few weeks ago and still haven’t written a review – very unusual for me. I think it’s because this film affected me so much. It’s about a couple who have been married for a long time, and as they prepare to celebrate their 45th anniversary comes the news that the body of his old girlfriend, frozen in an underground glacier since she died on a walking holiday before he ever met his wife, has been found.

This unsurprisingly generates much reflection on the road not taken – what sort of life he might have had if she hadn't died. He’s sensitive enough to not do much of this in front of his wife of 45 years, but she can see that he’s doing it, and it’s painful for her, and thus for him.

My first response was that this was an example of the inherent sadness of human existence. Nobody behaves badly, and yet they both are badly hurt. Life is a collection of roads not taken, and roads taken. We make the best choices we can with the knowledge we have and the hands we are dealt, and we have to live with the consequences even – especially – when hindsight shows the choices not to have been the best they could have been. That’s why seeing any story that takes in the whole arc of a life – Pinter’s ‘Betrayals’ comes to mind, but also the brilliant puppet show about gay men 'Or You Could Kiss me' – is so moving and also so disquieting.

But I think that there’s more to this particular story. After I thought about I decided that actually the husband had done something wrong, and that this was actually the most painful thing about the story; more, that my initial failure to allow this, and read this as a story about everybody doing the best they can, actually says something about me and how I've lived my life. (I won’t say more about what it was, because it would spoil a really good film, with great acting, for anyone who hasn't seen it. If you want to know, talk to me when you've seen it; or talk to your therapist, or your partner of many years.)

Which is probably why it’s taken me so long to write the review.

Review of ‘The Second Mother’

A Brazilian film about the relationship between families and their household servants. I’ve little experience of this myself, but my wife and her family (South African) know all about kids being brought up by servants. There are loving relationships between the servants and their charges, but everyone knows – or grows to know – the precise boundaries that delineate the extent to which the servants are, and are not, family members.

And that’s what the film is about. Val, a poor woman from the North East of Brazil, brings up the nice young son in a beautiful modernist house in Sao Paolo, with pool, lovely garden, cute Labrador and all the other trimmings. She is trusted, loyal, loves the son and is loved by him in a way that he doesn’t love his real mother – the Portuguese title is ‘When is she coming home?’, a question that the boy asks about his mummy early on, when he’s about six and being cared for by Val.

But the stable equilibrium is disrupted by the introduction of Val’s daughter Jessica, who comes to Sao Paolo to take the entrance exam for university. The family – Dona Barbara really, who runs the show – gives permission for Jessica to stay in the house, in Val’s servant room. But Jessica doesn’t understand the rules of the master-servant game and all the little ways in which Val diminishes herself to maintain those boundaries. Oh, and she’s beautiful and clever.

This film is actually painful to watch, though it does have some comic moments. Dona Barbara reacts very badly to the disruption – when Jessica swims in the family pool she orders it to be drained, claiming to have seen a rat in there. Her husband, a failed artist, makes a fool of himself because Jessica is beautiful and young.

This is a bit slow in the beginning, and a bit long, but really worth staying with. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Review of 'Paper Towns'

Like the high school noire film 'Brick', but without the plot complexity, the clever cinematography, the drugs, the fact, just a regular US high school rom-com, with a bit of mystery because the most popular girl in the school disappears, but not all that much mystery really because she's always been a bit wild and dark. Mainly a buddy movie about the two male friends who help our hero to look for her, and the relationship between the three boys. Watchable, but not immensely so.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Review of 'The Wolfpack'

Possibly the weirdest film I have ever seen, and I have seen some weird ones. This is shot and edited with all the visual sense of a family home movie. That's not surprising, since a lot of it appears to be found footage from the family's home movies. Watching it made Ruth feel physically sick as a result of all the handheld camera work and hosepipe pans. Youtube does a better job of stabilising video footage than has been done here.

That's part of the point, of course. This is supposed to look un-mediated, to enhance its authenticity. It is a documentary about a family of six children (now young adults) and their parents who grow up in a tiny apartment in New York city, with the children never ever leaving the apartment. They have grown up with almost no contact with the outside world - they are home educated, so they've not been to school or met other children...or anyone. Their knowledge of the outside world comes mainly from their DVD collection, which contains a lot of classics and quite a lot of horror or near-horror (like Reservoir Dogs). Their father, a South American man, has kept the family shut up in this way to protect them from the corrosive effects of contemporary culture, drugs, violence etc.

So they've grown up with Tarantino as their window on the world. The mother and father met when she was a hippy tourists, and they'd planned to move to Scandinavia where they thought the values were sound, but somehow they'd not made it and ended up stranded in the Lower East Side, high up in a housing project. No TV, no internet, just the DVDs. The children (five boys, one girl, all with Hindu names and long hair down to the base of their spines) amuse themselves by re-making the films with a home video camera and cardboard props; much of the film contains footage of their re-enactments. They seem to have a huge amount of equipment to help them do this. Later the film shows them emerging from the apartment and going outside for short trips - to the beach, to a forest, to the shops - all of which is a powerful experience for them.

All of them seem quite damaged by the experience, but they are not totally alien to me. I can't help thinking that some of the people I've known over the years who have sought to protect their children from the malign influences of the world have been a bit like this; I recognise some of the feeling in myself. The fact that they'd wanted to move to Scandinavia and thought well of its values somehow marks them out as not entirely insane.

Somehow the young adults came into contact with the woman who made this film, and she is almost present in it. It looks like a student project, and yet it must have had some money and some backing, if only for the post-production and the distribution. I would love to have been at the meeting where this was pitched.

Friday, August 21, 2015

A few notes on Zionism and the Jewishness of Israel

Two separate questions really. The historic status of Zionism, and whether Israel should be ‘the state of the Jewish people’.

On the first one, the story is complicated. Zionism has/had some of the features of a classic (Eastern) European nationalist movement, but it also differed from it in some important ways. I can’t think of another nationalist movement that wasn’t about a people living in its territory, and wanting that people to have self-government on that territory. That in itself makes Zionism problematic. Progressives generally support ‘the right of nations to self-determination’ in the sense that they allow territories to secede. Support for Zionism entails rather more than this basic principle.

The Zionists were also unusually uninterested in the national culture of the people that they represented; they mainly wanted to replace it with another culture which they intended to create. Of course, other kinds of nationalism to some extent ‘invented’ the nation which it championed, but I think Zionism rather took this to an extreme.

Historically, Zionism was a minority movement within the various Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, and even more so in the West. That doesn’t prove that its claim to represent that national movement of the Jews is necessarily wrong, but it is surely relevant. Zionism wasn’t even the only form of Jewish nationalism – there were others, including Territorialism and Sejmism, and the ‘distributed nationalism’ of the various Yiddishist nationalists. Without the sponsorship of the British Empire, and without the holocaust, it would have been an interesting, quirky footnote in Jewish history, like the Garveyites for Black America. There would have been some communities of ‘practical Zionists’ in Palestine, a bit like the Templar communities founded by German Protestants, and they might have survived depending on how an independent Palestine turned out.

And of course, up until the present time most Jews have not been nationalists, and many have argued that the Jews don’t have any national identity apart from citizenship of the countries in which they live. This view was particularly prevalent in Western Europe, where the idea of belong to an ethnos independent of citizenship was not well understood or widely believed in. Believing that ‘national self-determination’ didn’t apply to Jews didn’t make these people anti-semites. That Zionism has been successful in establishing a state doesn’t make them retrospective anti-semites, and therefore it surely doesn’t make anyone who holds this belief now an anti-semite either. It’s just a different view about the applicability of nationalism to the various Jewish communities around the world.

Has Zionism turned out to be a ‘good thing’, in some fair historical balance sheet? It’s possible that Zionism will turn out to have been a good thing for all Jews, or for some Jews. It’s plausible that it won’t, and taking that view doesn’t make someone an anti-semite either.

OK, now the other question. In what sense should Israel be a ‘Jewish State’? Most liberal democracies don’t privilege one ethnic group among their citizens. It’s unusual for the state to record or document individual citizen’s ethnicities. There are some exceptions, usually based on the idea of compensating for or redressing the effect of past discrimination – Australia does something like that as regards Aboriginal people, for example. But in France, and in Italy, the state at least regards everyone with citizenship as French or Italian. Why should Israel be different? Why can’t it accept an ‘Israeli’ national identity and status, irrespective of religion or ethnicity?

This is not an abstract question of tidiness. Ultimately the fate of the Israeli Jews will depend on their ability to make peace with the neighbours. That’s a very tall order, and the Israeli Jews would be foolish to disarm in the hope of this happening. They live in a very rough neighbourhood. It is managing to have plenty of nasty wars without them. The neighbours never wanted them to come, and don’t think they should be there – in the strong sense of ‘should’. Nevertheless, there is no long term future for Israeli Jews, and certainly no democratic future, without it.

I know that there are some Arab nationalists, and some others who are probably not nationalists, who would like all the trappings of Zionism stripped from the state, so that there would be no peculiar ethnic identity in its symbolic representation – changing the words of the Hatikvah, changing the flag, and so on. I can see the tidiness logic of this, but I don’t think it’s very important.

 I do think that legal and institutional discrimination, and segregation and economic disadvantage, for non-Jews in Israel should end. The historic relationship of Israel to the wider Jewish world, and the role of the Zionism movement in bring the state into being, is not sufficient justification for this to continue. Israel will remain a demographically and culturally Jewish country without them, and that’s Jewish enough for me.